Autumn of 2023
In this final part of our review of the year, we focus on the final months of 2023.
Part 3: September to December 2023
A default 20mph speed limit on restricted roads was introduced across Wales. Another first amongst the home nations. As with most firsts it drew a lot of attention and criticism as the Conservatives u-turned on their previous support as part of their new pro-car agenda.
Campaigners from the Stonehenge Alliance visited UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris to hand them a copy of their 228,000 worldwide petition against the dual carriageway through the World Heritage Site.
The consultation on rail ticket office closures ended. Three-quarters of a million people responded to oppose the proposals.
The Bee Network launched as Greater Manchester became the first place in England to retake control of buses since deregulation in the 1980s.
In an ironic twist, we had to postpone our conference (to 23 March 2024) after it was affected by rail strikes aimed at inconveniencing those attending the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
Unsurprisingly the rail ticket office closures were scrapped in the face of overwhelming opposition. A rescue deal was also agreed to save the one day travelcard in London after a huge outcry. These are great examples of how people taking action and responding to consultations can stop bad policy decisions.
Another extension to the £2 bus fare cap was announced at the Conservative Party conference. The temporary cap started in January and was set to run until the end of March. It was then extended until 30 June and then again to 31st October. This latest extension until the end of 2024 will at last provide some certainty for passengers and operators alike.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper launched ‘The plan for drivers’. This was the Conservatives trying to drive a wedge between ‘drivers’ and other road users. However, this is a false narrative, as highlighted by the latest RAC Report on Motoring. It showed that 23% of drivers are also cyclists and 26% use the bus at least once a month. Looking behind the headlines in ‘The plan for drivers’, there was very little substance. However, the tone was worrying, painting a picture of driver entitlement and a supposed ‘war on the motorist’. In reality, we already live in a car dominated society. This is not necessarily through choice. For example, 55% of drivers in the RAC report said they would drive less if public transport was better.
A third u-turn of the month came at the expense of the northern section of HS2. Following days of rumours, Rishi Sunak finally announced that HS2 would not reach Manchester, from that very city! Deemed a “betrayal of the north” by Boris Johnson and many others, the decision was unpopular across party lines. The announcement, called Network North, saw many promises for local transport schemes in the North and the Midlands. However, it actually resulted in £12bn being syphoned from the £36bn HS2 saving away from public transport and into roads. Such was the chaos around Network North, of which even the Department for Transport (DfT) were unaware, that several of the schemes announced were found to have already been built.
Lots of important reports were released this month. The Transport Committee published its report on the National Networks National Policy Statement (NNNPS). The NNNPS is the main policy document guiding strategic road, and to a lesser extent rail, development in England. We were quoted nine times in the Transport Committee’s NNNPS report, from our written evidence and supplementary submission. It was highly critical of the Government’s approach to road building and a vindication of our campaigning. On the same day this was published, the Government snuck out its response to the Transport Committee’s report on strategic road investment. It basically ignored most of the recommendations.
The National Infrastructure Commission published its second National Infrastructure Assessment. It was a disappointingly confusing report from the body responsible for providing independent analysis and advice to the Government to ensure the UK meets its long-term infrastructure needs. On the one hand, it said good things about investing in public transport and active travel to improve productivity, and also the need to reduce car use in city centres. On the other hand, it perversely went on to promote more inter urban road building. This will increase car use in cities and undermine improvements to public transport. There was also no mention of the need to reduce traffic to meet net-zero or the benefits of getting freight onto rail.
The response to the Climate Change Committee’s Annual Progress Report had the feeling of a Government that couldn’t care less. The only good news in the report came in terms of the progress being made by Scotland and Wales on surface transport.
The Climate Change Committee also provided an update on its assessment of progress on reducing carbon emissions after Rishi Sunak scrapped the 2030 EV target. Unsurprisingly it “remain[s] concerned about the likelihood of achieving the UK’s future targets, especially the substantial policy gap to the UK’s 2030 goal.”
It was hugely disappointing that Shropshire County Council approved the Shrewsbury North West Relief Road planning application. Doubly disappointing was that the project was given money by the Department for Transport that was to be used for the northern leg of HS2. Around 150 protesters gathered outside the council meeting, while inside several campaigners voiced their concerns about the scheme. These included Shrewsbury’s drinking water being contaminated, and nine irreplaceable veteran trees, including the Darwin Oak, being felled to make way for the road.
There was some good news on the legal front. Andrew Boswell was given permission to proceed to the Court of Appeal on the three A47 schemes in Norfolk. We were also given permission for our judicial review of active travel funding cuts.
The Transport Secretary decided to delay the decision on the A66. This was the 18th time in just four years that the Secretary of State had delayed a decision on a large road scheme. Delays are often blamed on planning or objectors, when most are down to the Department for Transport or National Highways.
The National Audit Office published its 2022-23 Departmental Overview of the Department for Transport (DfT). It gave the DfT the highest possible risk rating for delivering on its legal climate, air quality and biodiversity targets. Unless the DfT reconsiders outdated schemes, such as the A66 and Lower Thames Crossing, it is going to continue to fail.
The NHS launched a net zero travel and transport strategy. It was great to see it promoting cutting carbon emissions and air pollution to achieve positive health benefits. Commitments include ensuring all ambulances are zero emission by 2030 and reducing staff travel emissions by 50% by 2033. This would be through shifts to more sustainable forms of travel and the electrification of personal vehicles. As well as the health and social benefits, implementing the commitments in the strategy would save the NHS over £59 million a year.
Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Professor Chris Whitty published his annual report. It focused on health in an ageing society. It highlighted the importance of staying active to improve health and remain independent. This would be a lot easier to do if the Government prioritised healthy travel choices.
Research by Transport for All found disabled people make an average of just 5.84 journeys per week. This is considerably lower than the national average of 17 trips a week.
New analysis showed the UK Government was likely to miss its target under the Paris agreement of a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Current policies would likely lead to a 59% reduction.
The case against the Stonehenge road tunnel was heard by Justice Holgate. A large crowd of supporters turned up outside the High Court on the first day of the hearing. The judgement is expected in the New Year. As with the Stonehenge case, the A38 will be having another day in court following permission being granted for a fresh legal challenge.
Construction of the £1bn A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet dual carriageway began on the last day of COP28. It is one of the highest carbon emitting schemes in the current roads programme (RIS2). Transport Secretary Mark Harper celebrated its commencement, the irony clearly lost on him.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford surprised many by resigning earlier than expected after five years in charge. This leaves questions over the future of the Welsh Government’s progressive agenda on transport and net zero.
The Government announced changes to the National Planning Policy Framework which mark a shift in emphasis away from building in the countryside towards brownfield and urban intensification. This at least is a step in the right direction and should help reduce car-based developments swallowing up vast tracts of countryside.
Some positive rail news was announced near the end of the month when the Government set a target to increase rail freight by at least 75% by 2050. While this is a good first step, their claims of it being ambitious are worrying. Just maintaining its current market share would mean a 60% growth by 2050. In the summer, Rail Partners’ report on rail freight highlighted evidence to back their call for it to be trebled by 2050. To achieve this, Rail Partners’ found that the freight market would need to grow by around 4% each year.
What can we expect from 2024
2023 has been our busiest year ever. Unfortunately we expect the irrational announcements and divisive messaging to continue in the new year. With a general election on the horizon things are unlikely to get better anytime soon.
If you like what we’ve achieved this year and our support for local communities, please consider helping us continue the fight in 2024.
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